Besides the public health emergency of the coronavirus pandemic, the social and economic impacts have been felt deeply by the Timorese people. Most of the population work in subsistence agriculture and the informal sector, and lockdown measures mean people often choose between two hard decisions: losing their earnings or becoming infected. The Timor-Leste government has been adaptive and flexible in putting out measures to help its population, drawn from its sovereign wealth fund. Despite the delicate and multifaceted challenges facing Timor-Leste, state institutions and society remain resilient.
Timor-Leste has been experiencing the most difficult period of the coronavirus pandemic in 2021. Statistically speaking, since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic last year, Timor-Leste has experienced two waves of coronavirus infection. The first wave began in March 2021 as daily cases steadily increased, reaching its peak in May. By this time, the health authorities reported almost 200 cases on a daily basis. The daily cases began to slow down around June and July, with less than 100 daily cases being reported by health authorities. The daily cases began to increase tremendously again throughout August, as health authorities recorded 5,811 COVID-19 cases and 41 deaths; equivalent to 187.5 daily cases and a 1.3 daily death rate. This represents 34.7% of the total COVID-19 cases and 61% of total death that was reported until August 2021.
In total, by the end of September 2021, Timor-Leste reported 19,498 cases and 117 deaths. Dili is responsible for nearly 70% of the cases and 70% of the total death. Looking at the size of the population, Timor-Leste has 14,400 cases and 85 deaths per million. Putting this into the international context, this is lower than the global infection and death rate of 29,155 cases and 599.6 deaths per million. From a regional perspective, the number of cases and the number of deaths per million is still lower than neighboring countries in Southeast Asia like Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
The rising cases in 2021 is in stark contrast with 2020, when the country only reported 44 cases and maintained zero death. It was regarded as a success story. As is the case in other countries, the success story in the past is not a guarantee to be able to continuously control its spread in the community. Specifically for Timor-Leste, sharing a terrestrial border with Indonesia poses a tremendous challenge to control illegal crossings. This is the main factor that drives community transmission. The existing social and economic conditions also undermines the effectiveness of lockdown measures. Nonetheless, the successful prevention strategy of last year was able to give public health authorities the opportunity to be better prepared in terms of knowledge, basic facilities, testing capacity, quarantine and isolation facilities.
COVID-19 not only induces a public health emergency, but it has social and economic dimensions to it. The ability of each government to respond largely depends also on the preexisting social and economic conditions and the existing political situation. For Timor-Leste, the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic is multidimensional and complex in ways that the country has never experienced before. COVID-19 worsens the social and economic conditions and prolongs the trend of economic decline since 2017. As most of the population live on subsistence agriculture and the non-agriculture informal sector, lockdown measures place people under difficult choices: between getting infected by the virus or losing income. At the macroeconomic level, COVID-19 adds another complexity to political uncertainty, again since 2017. According to the estimate from Timor Leste’s national statistics, the growth rate contracted by 8.5% in 2020. It is the biggest economic contraction in Timor’s history since 2002, and the biggest economic contraction in the region, alongside the Philippines, whose economy also contracted by 8.5% in 2020. The primary cause is the steep decline in public investment. Many private sector activities have been forced to close down or downsize their business activities, resulting in job losses. The informal sector has also lost significant income, of up to 50%. Lockdown and sanitary fences (isolated areas often based on municipalities) also disrupt supply chains, therefore affecting business activities. In certain periods, this also affected the price of essential goods. The combination of these obviously impacted the living standard of the population, particularly the most vulnerable groups.
Resilient state institutions
COVID-19 is a test to the resiliency of state institutions around the world. In Timor-Leste’s context, before coronavirus, Timor-Leste already faced a delicate political situation from 2017. A humanitarian crisis caused by natural disaster added another problem to it. Despite the precarious situation, state institutions have maintained its basic functions in terms of service delivery and public order. Furthermore, democratic principles and democratic values continue to be upheld. Timor-Leste is regarded as an example where a state of emergency has not been used to undermine civic space for civil society.
The functioning state institutions facilitate the government to deliver key services, and adopt key policies to curtail the virus, to mitigate social and economic impacts, to coordinate humanitarian responses, and to normalize basic infrastructure destroyed by Cyclone Seroja. Engagement with civil society plays critical roles in the COVID-19 and humanitarian responses, monitoring the implementation of the government’s policies and raising awareness of coronavirus and the vaccines.
In the public health sector, the government is responsive and flexible to adapt its public health measures according to international practice. Protecting public health and people’s lives remain the government’s top priority since the initial period of the pandemic. After COVID-19 was declared by WHO as a global pandemic, the government responded quickly by imposing mandatory quarantine for those who entered the country. Other public health measures are also imposed or at least encouraged, such as banning big gatherings, including social, cultural and religious gatherings, mask wearing, and social distancing rules.
Acknowledging the importance of partnerships and difficulties faced in securing vaccines, the government was open to receiving contributions from development partners. The national vaccination campaign was launched in early April 2021 and has since become the main strategy to curtail the spread of the virus. By the end of September, the country already administered more than 723,000 doses; sufficient for 59% of the eligible population. Nationwide, 59% of the eligible population already received at least one dose and 36.6% already received a second dose. Dili, which is the epicenter of the pandemic, is the highest municipality where three out of four eligible residents got at least one shot and 68% already received their second.
Development partners have been crucial to the vaccination campaign by making vaccines available and with technical assistance. Australia in particular is the biggest partner in this regard, contributing more than 500,000 vaccines. Other contributors of the vaccines are Portugal, China, Japan, New Zealand, and United Nations agencies through the COVAX facility. One critical challenge facing health authorities throughout the vaccination program has been to convince people that the vaccine is safe and secure and it is the best possible solution to for COVID-19. This is very critical as many Timorese are skeptical about the safety of the virus. This attitude is normal given that the COVID-19 vaccine is new. Their skepticism is also fueled by hoax news which has easily spread to the public through social media. To address this issue, and to accelerate the vaccination program, the members of the government have been directly involved, by visiting communities and responding directly to their concerns.
The vaccination campaign coupled with lockdown measures have shown positive outcomes. Its initial impact was to bring down daily cases observed during June and July 2021. Delta variants then entered Timor-Leste through illegal crossings, sparking another wave of infections in the community throughout August. This put enormous pressures on the weak public health system. The government was then forced to adopt another lockdown measure primarily in Dili for two weeks. During the second half of September, the reports from health authorities showed significant declines of the daily infection rate, as health authorities reported only a total of 2,789 compared to 5,811 in August. With the decline of daily infections and increased number of vaccinations, the government is looking to return to normal. The government already terminated a sanitary fence on Dili, which has been imposed since March this year.
On the social and economic front, although the parliament was only able to approve the budget by September, a duodecimal budget enabled the government remained functional throughout 2020. The COVID-19 fund was established with the unanimous approval from Parliament. Overall, the government’s social and economic policies aim to minimize the social and economic impacts caused by the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown policies. The first economic stimulus package was adopted, with the centerpiece of the stimulus being the cash transfer programs. The government then established the Commission for the Preparation of the Economic Recovery Plan (the Commission), which produced the plan, with short and long-term measures, approved by the Council of Ministers. The food basket program Cesta Básica is the centerpiece of the short-term measures, proposed by the Commission and approved by the government. While cash transfers had immediate impacts on household consumption and the informal economy, the food basket program was able to create several thousands of temporary jobs and allow cash to flow to local enterprises who took part in the program. In the long run, the central message of the Commission’s recommendation is to put people at the center of the development. Although this is not a new approach, as the Commission argue, COVID-19 provides an opportunity to design policy measures to transform the country.
Other short-term measures that have been implemented during 2020 and extended to 2021 are: a credit moratorium, a credit guarantee scheme, a recovery subsidy for the private sector, extended social security to the informal sector, an electricity subsidy and internet subsidy for students, and subsidy for student tuition fees. In general, most of the social and economic policies are in line with international practices during the pandemic. The key point is that the government is responsive and flexible to adjust its policies even facing difficult circumstances.
The sovereign Petroleum Fund plays key roles in this multifaceted situation. The fund enabled the government to finance public health measures, such as improving quarantine and isolation facilities and purchasing essential equipment. It also enabled the government to finance social and economic measures. In total, according to the International Monetary Fund, in 2020 alone, the government’s coronavirus-related spending is equivalent to 12.3% of non-oil GDP and increases to 17.7% of non-oil GDP following the 2021 budget revision. This is only possible because of the sovereign wealth fund.
Public perception on the government is also in line with the way the government has responded to COVID-19 and other measures. Based on multiple rounds of the Public Perception Survey conducted by The Asia Foundation, overall, the public was positive about the direction of the country in 2020 – but this was a declining trend in 2021. For example, in February 2021, 73% of the respondents said that the country is on the right direction, rising from 40% in May 2020. But this declined again to 48% in May 2021. The survey showed 60% percent of respondents said that the government is doing its job in May 2021 although this declined again in May 2021.
Another important observation to be made during this period is the resiliency of the Timorese people. The dark history that the Timorese went through provide important lessons on how to survive with the very little they have, to recover from big losses and share the limited resources they have. These turned out to be an important lesson during the pandemic and recent floods. The country’s history provides mental strength for recovery. When the lockdown was first implemented, it was firstly the solidarity among people that helped some of the most needy and when Cyclone Seroja hit the country, more solidarity was exchanged among the people, including from Timorese friends overseas, which was very critical at the initial stage. The astounding thing of being part of this is that people give not out of abundance that they have, but from the limited resources that they possess. This has been an important part of the natural disaster emergency response, and during the hardship that people face during the global pandemic.
COVID-19 poses unprecedented challenges to Timor-Leste that the country has never experienced before. Amid these challenges, it is very important to underline that Timor-Leste’s state institutions remain resilient and able to exercise its basic functions and the democratic principle remains upheld. This provides strong foundation for Timor-Leste to return to normal life. Since early October 2021, the daily cases has significantly dropped and active cases have also been low while the vaccination rate is going up. Alongside the resilient state institutions, development partners have been critical during this process, by providing technical expertise, medical equipment, and more importantly, making vaccines available. Civil society organizations have also been pivotal in terms of facilitating the information to reach to the people and providing critical voices for the government, helping it improve its policies.
Guteriano Neves is an independent policy analyst, based in Dili.
The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.